"What's that? Ah, playoffs? Don't talk about — playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs?" — Jim Mora, former Indianapolis Colts coach, Nov. 25, 2001
Not even the most hard-bitten skeptic could have predicted such an ugly finish to an ugly season.
Hopes were high that Toronto FC would clinch the first playoff berth in franchise history this past weekend, the Canadian club needing only a victory against the last-place New York Red Bulls and either FC Dallas or the Colorado Rapids to drop points in their games.
But Toronto's utterly humiliating 5-0 road loss to New York on Saturday night put paid to its foolish and completely misguided post-season aspirations.
In reality, it was the best thing that could've happened to Toronto FC because, had the Reds managed to sneak their way into the post-season, it would have only camouflaged the major problems that bedevil the team and gave fans a false sense of hope and security.
Instead, the loss to the lowly Red Bulls was a sobering wake-up call and served to underline, in spades, that Toronto FC is not a playoff team.
No way, no how, no chance.
Hopefully Saturday night's capitulation will be the impetus for major change, and boy, does this franchise ever need an overhaul.
It starts at the top with general manager Mo Johnston.
Johnston knows the ins and outs of Major League Soccer's complicated salary cap system and has a proven track record of success in the MLS draft.
But the Scot has managed to build a grossly unbalanced team by making a slew of questionable moves over the past two years, among them trading for Chad Barrett and inking him to a contract extension, acquiring Adrian Serioux and Nick Garcia in separate trade deals, and signing an out-of-shape Ali Gerba and an unproven Pablo Vitti.
There's no denying that midfielder Julian de Guzman is a talented player, perhaps even the best ever produced in Canada. But one has to question the logic behind Johnston's decision to throw designated-player money at de Guzman when the team already had a wealth of midfield options.
Wouldn't it have made more sense to use the DP slot to address one of the team's major problem areas, like, say, in defence or at the forward position?
Also questionable was Johnston's decision to name Chris Cummins as interim coach in the wake of John Carver's resignation in April. Cummins is a nice guy — a decent bloke, as the Brits are fond of saying — but the Englishman is also inexperienced, and too often he demonstrated a tactical naiveté as the season progressed.
Maybe Cummins was the only option at the time, but throwing him into the deep end like that was a recipe for disaster.
As for the defence, well…
Toronto's back line had the fourth-worst defensive record in the league, conceding a whooping 46 goals. The Reds "only" gave up 43 goals last season.
Even more worrisome was Toronto's inability to hold on to a lead — the Reds gave up a league-worst 16 goals in the final 15 games, and eight late-game collapses cost the team 15 points.
What the team is missing is a commanding centre-back, a wily veteran in the mould of Franco Baresi or Tony Adams — someone who can effectively take charge back there and organize the defence.
Toronto also has a slew of quality midfielders, but what the team lacks is a player who can give width to the attack. A threatening winger, or a fullback who can make effective runs down the flank and deliver a dangerous cross into the box (no, Marvell Wynne doesn't count), would make Toronto a more menacing team going forward.
And speaking of going forward, this team is crying out for a forward who can lead the line and bag 15-20 goals per season.
For all of his hard work and hustle, Chad Barrett can't score, his five goals in 29 games this season a startling testament to his lack of scoring touch and finishing ability in front of goal.
Dwayne De Rosario bagged a team-high 11 goals this season. When you're top goal-scorer is a midfielder, you know you have problems.
But more than anything else, what Toronto FC needs is more heart, more character and more commitment. What they have now are too many paycheque players — players who care more about getting paid than fighting for the cause.
In what was touted beforehand as the biggest game in club history, Toronto came up with its worst-ever performance and worst-ever result against a Red Bulls team that is considered one of the worst in league history.
Save for a few exceptions, the players simply didn't show up on Saturday, and as a result the team put in a meek and cowardly performance.
Afterward, De Rosario and midfielder Sam Cronin talked about the team needing a major culture change and that there are too many players in the locker room who simply don't care, a startling admission about the lack of team spirit and cohesion.
A victory in New York and a subsequent playoff run would have only papered over the cracks in the wall.
Saturday's humiliating loss proved that the foundation is not sound and needs to be fixed.